PODCAST: "Girl Power" author Marisa Meltzer at the Brookline Booksmith [MP3]

Marisa Meltzer shows off her zines

There probably aren’t a ton of high school girls in America scrawling the word “slut” and “rape” down their arms and across their stomachs as a proud political statement, or joining all-girl punk bands in throngs and putting on DIY basement shows. It’s a big stretch to say that the early-’90s riot grrrl movement, or its cornerstone feminist ideals, are resurfacing with any force.

Still, alongside the waves of denim jackets, the DVD release of MTV’s Daria and the reinstatement of the Sarah McLachlan-founded Lilith Fair, the recent mass unearthing of semi-subterranean '90s culture has caused – or at least coincided with – bits of renewed interest in the emblems of riot grrrl, propelled in part by one of its poster children, Kathleen Hanna.  

Hanna, Bikini Kill’s frontwoman, announced in January that she’d bestow her own riot grrrl relics – namely ‘zines – to NYU’s Fales Library to kickstart the acquisition of materials for its new Riot Grrrl Collection. Then she called on Bikini Kill fans to e-mail her a “reaction to a song we wrote, something weird that happened at one of our shows, a personal anecdote or just WHATEVER” to be posted on a new Bikini Kill archives blog, which prompted a small horde of her readers to summon and submit their riot grrrl nostalgia. 

Nearly 20 years since its birth, riot grrrlhood has become a story that's once again ripe for the telling, sans the buzzworthiness and media exploitation that its key players loathed. Living in the same building as Hanna during her years as a college student in Olympia, Washington, was writer and feminist Marisa Meltzer. Meltzer, coauthor of the 2007 How Sassy Changed My Life (Faber and Faber), has taken her experience as a front-row spectator and participant in riot grrrl as a chance to dovetail a ’90s fetish with an archival look at women in modern rock 'n' roll with her new book, Girl Power (Faber and Faber).

In spite of Meltzer’s fanatically extensive knowledge of all things riot grrrl, she uses the movement merely as a starting point in Girl Power before delving into a chronological discussion of everything that succeeded it. After explaining the scene in Olympia in the early '90s and laying down the basics of riot grrrl, she touches upon the paradoxical career of Courtney Love, the ways in which Fiona Apple’s sulky sexuality were “incredibly alluring” and how die-hard third wave feminists could never really get in ideological sync with the original Lilith Fair in its heyday, citing herself as an example at her reading at the Brookline Booksmith back in February.

"I was not excited about it [the Lilith Fair] at all when I was a college student, when it originally came out," Meltzer said. "I thought I was just better than it, really. I thought it was kind of lame and like, vaginal or something ... An interviewer in Salon asked me my feelings about it, and I said that it was like vagina music, and at that time, I was like, into cunt music. But now ... I see that the Lilith Fair did a lot of good."

In the book’s final chapter, Meltzer uses the 2008 Spice Girl reunion tour as a way to bring the chronicle full circle and try to connect the dots of today’s female pop musicians with those of riot grrrl’s glory days. “I can see how pining for the Spice Girls of all things seems like nostalgia at its worst, but their concert felt like one night where girls could be strong and frivolous and free to wear lip gloss and bare their midriffs and no one was overthinking it,” she read at the Booksmith. “It surely wasn’t feminism in action – there were certainly no political agendas being pushed or community organizing being done, and I’m sure Posh’s spindly thighs were doing nothing for anyone’s body issues – but it was thousands of girls in one place simply celebrating the state of being a girl.”

There are a lot of passages in Girl Power that progress like this -- passages that try to reconcile tepid condemnation with half-hearted optimism toward the recent trajectory of women in popular music, tinged with timidness that might have pissed off riot grrrl readers 15 years ago. Like a Spice Girls reunion show, Meltzer’s new book isn’t overthought, and there are no overt agendas being pushed. Girl Power is much more informational than it is inspirational; if there were a high-school course on women and rock music since 1990, this might be its required reading. And much like the floral prints and chunky boots that have made their way into just about everyone’s closet in the past year or two, Girl Power is part of a well-informed stroll down memory lane instead of a rousing call to action powered by gripping personal anecdotes and riotous feminist rhetoric – which is ultimately disappointing, considering Meltzer’s niche qualifications. But maybe that’s why she didn’t name it Grrrl Power.


DOWNLOAD: Marisa Meltzer on "Girl Power" [MP3]

Recorded live at the Brookline Booksmith (just awarded Best Book Store by our readers), on February 24, 2010; if you enjoyed this listening to this reading/lecture, check out the Booksmith's schedule of upcoming events. To subscribe to our podcast, paste this RSS feed into your podcatcher or feed-reader of choice, or bookmark //

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